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Paying the Dividend

THE latest round of proposed base closings is raising an understandable outcry from the communities that host them, as well as from the lawmakers who represent those communities and their states.

The task now, however, is to move quickly from the reactive to the pro-active: to develop strategies that find new uses for as many of the targeted facilities as possible. Energy spent on this activity will be far more beneficial in the long run than will attempts to keep the facilities operating as they are.

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The list of affected bases, which Defense Secretary Les Aspin issued Friday, was virtually unchanged from the one presented to him by the military services - with the exception of two bases in California, which Mr. Aspin removed after lobbying from members of the state's congressional delegation.

The list of base closings included 31 large facilities and a recommendation to shrink or consolidate another 134 bases. No region of the country was spared; and despite Aspin's deletions, no region of the country was harder hit than California. Nine bases from San Francisco to San Diego were on the list.

Of some 81,000 military and civilian jobs projected to be lost to the base closings overall, 40 percent would come from California, which already has the highest unemployment rate of any state in the nation. South Carolina would lose more than 17,000 jobs. Florida would lose 11,500.

Ironically, many of the lawmakers protesting the closings are the same ones who cite the cold war's end as an opportunity to cut defense spending - and then vote for ever smaller defense budgets that make the closings necessary.

Since 1986, defense spending as a share of the nation's overall economic activity has been falling. From its Reagan-era peak of 6.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in '86, defense spending in fiscal '97 was projected by the outgoing Bush administration to hit only 3.6 percent of GDP.

President Clinton's proposal to some $17 billion to help communities hit by closures will help. Moreover, the country's experience with converting military bases to civilian use is growing and must be tapped.

Yet Aspin has noted that this round of closures keeps on track the budget and personnel cuts the Bush administration had projected for fiscal 1997. Given Mr. Clinton's desire to best Bush's reductions by 200,000 people, more closures lie ahead. Despite a temptation to think "it can't happen here," no community or state that hosts military bases can afford to cling to the notion that its base is immune.

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